Neil Armstrong Speaks

Neil Armstrong is the keynote speaker at the suborbital conference, which has just started in Palo Alto. I’ll be live blogging his speech. Alan Stern is introing him, describing him as a pioneer in suborbital spaceflight with the X-15.

[Standing ovation]

Thanks for the warm welcome, and appreciate the opportunity to describe suborbital flight generations back. As a boy was an admirer of great aircraft designers, and in recent decades, Burt Rutan has earned a place on that list. Burt occasionally ribs the government for spending hundred of millions to attain same altitude as he did with SS1. Back in his day the hot aerodynamics field was transonic flight. Transonic wind tunnels were unreliable with shock waves bouncing off the walls giving poor results. Interest grew in a special aircraft for investigating transonics, a purely research airplane. Research aircraft weren’t new — the Wrights’ first plane was one, but the government did do it until the forties, when they started the X series with the X-1 (first to break the sound barrier in level flight) in 1947. Other aircraft were tailless, swept-wing, delta wing, etc. These led to the Century-series fighters.

(Navy) Skyrocket in particular taught us a lot in the early fifties, setting altitude records and first aircraft to reach Mach 2. Air Force decided to recapture record, and achieved it with Mach 2.44, but lost the aircraft with pilot recovery. X-2 was made of stainless steel, first flight in 1955, new speed record of almost Mach 3, and new altitude record of over 130,000 feet. Final flight hit exceeded Mach 3, losing both aircraft and pilot, due to flying into region of steadily decreasing stability, due to high altitudes where conventional aircraft controls were ineffective. Hydrogen peroxide thrusters were added to the X-1B, which Armstrong flew, but it was retired due to fatigue cracks with limited RCS control results.

Then came Sputnik, and the NACA became NASA. NACA, Navy and Air Force had decided earlier in the decade that they needed a faster airplane capable of higher altitude. Heat could be handled by hot, insulated, or cooled or ablatively cooled structure. Highest temperatures could be handled by nickel alloys. New research aircraft would be hot structure and fly to highest operating temperature of those metals, which was about Mach 7, which was audacious, because no aircraft had flown past Mach 2 without going unstable. So that was the X-15, whose purpose was to fly fast and hot, not to fly high. But an aircraft that could reach those kind of speeds would have enough energy to achieve a hundred miles altitude, though that wasn’t the goal. But since it could do it, the NACA decided to utilize a peroxide RCS system, testing it first in the NF-104, which Armstrong flew to 90,000 feet, where the aerosurfaces were completely ineffective. Used yaw motion induced by spinning turbines to do control tests.

X-15 designed to hold one human and enough propellant to get to Mach 7. X-15 had 22-foot wing with low aspect ratio and no ailerons. Roll control by differential elevators. High-Mach directional stability provided by upper and lower fins which were both flying rudders. Lower tail was jettisoned for landing, and if it didn’t jettison, Joe Walker said it would be the “fastest plow in the world.”

Rocket engine was 57,000 lbf thrust, with anhydrous ammonia and LOX. In first flight some parts got to 1500 deg F, cherry red. Velocities and altitudes above the atmosphere used an inertial measurement unit, doing analog single integrations (digital far too slow then to do real-time position and velocity). Did a lot of research, including flow studies, astronomy, heat transfer, etc. Had a remarkable record. Three aircraft, many tens of flights over a period of years. Showing a short film of a mission profile while taking questions.

Q: What does he think about commercial/government collaboration?

A: NACA’s job was to “investigate problems of flight and potential solutions,” which they did, making results available to industry in general, and was very successful for aviation. We’re in a new environment now with different objectives, participants and goals. Certainly in the suborbital area a lot of things to be done. Has been absent for four decades since the end of the X-15 program, a lot of work to be done and a lot of opportunity. Hope that some of the approaches now being provide will be profitable and useful.

Q (Alan Stern): Did you foresee the kind of commercialism and tourism applications fifty years ago that we’re starting to see today?

A: We had a lot of vision, and thought we were making a roadmap for people to follow, and whether they did or not was up to them. We weren’t any better at looking ahead than anyone else.

9 thoughts on “Neil Armstrong Speaks”

  1. Burt occasionally ribs the government for spending hundred of millions to attain same altitude as he did with SS1.

    I always thought this was very disingenuous on the part of Rutan. The government didn’t spend hundreds of millions to get to 100 km. It spent hundreds of millions to go Mach 6 in level flight at 100,000 ft. I think Rutan would have been hard pressed to duplicate that feat.

    1. Jim,

      I agree.

      And for that hundreds of millions of dollars the government got 3 aircraft that made a total of 199 flights over a period of 10 years laying a solid foundation for understanding both hypersonic and piloted suborbital flight, a knowledge base Burt Rutan benefited from.

      By contrast, for the tens of millions that Burt Rutan spent there was only a single rocket plane that made only a dozen powered flights and that appears to have contributed very little to advancing the understanding of suborbital flight.

      1. No, its an attitude I find many New Space firms have, which is why they often end up relearning the lessons of the past the hard way.

  2. Burt has always been well aware of the differences. The fact is, however, that the USG could not have built Spaceship 1 and White Knight for $25 million, even in 1965 dollars. It could not have built “just” White Knight for that, or anything close to it, for $25 million. And the government gets very pissy when anyone dares mention that, because they know full well that the order of magnitude extra cost buys almost nothing of tangible value.

    1. Oh no, but you’re wrong! That extra money pays for countless meetings at far away locations complete with air fare, hotel accommodations, rental cars and per diem. It pays for the preparation and printing of endless briefing slides and reports that few people will ever read. The government’s operating policy is “Give us your money and we’ll spend it.”

      For military procurement, the mandated JCIDS process is so convoluted that one Air Force general told me last year that “I couldn’t get a paperclip through that process in less than 2 years.” Gotta keep the bureaucrats employed, don’t you know.

  3. That extra money pays for countless meetings at far away locations complete with air fare, hotel accommodations, rental cars and per diem.

    Written by someone who has probably seen it from the inside. I won’t forget seeing CEV “test” mockups sitting next to returned portion of Dragon’s first sub-orbital flight. SpaceX simply had Dragon sitting there with its slight charring from entry. CEV had a big banner saying “CEV is built near me” with dots around the country showing Congressional districts getting the pork.

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